Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Movie Review

Well folks, it's another year at Hogwarts Academy (two years in real life), and our rapidly maturing stars are back for another round of magical high jinks and mass merchandising in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry's been absent since the fall of 2002, and even casual viewers will notice that a lot has changed over the last two years. Director Chris Columbus (who did the first two films) is out, replaced with the controversial Alfonso Cuarón, who last hit the scene with the teen sex romp Y Tu Mamá También.

You'll notice Cuarón's touch right away. He likes to pick up the camera and get right in his actor's faces, moving all the while, a stark contrast to Columbus's traditionalism. Gone as well are the rich Technicolor tones of the Columbus movies; Cuarón prefers washed-out, yellowish shading that connotes decay and decrepitude. This is old-school wizardry, not kids stuff. In one fell swoop, Cuarón has reinvented the movies into an arthouse series that's as un-kid friendly as it gets.

How you feel about all of that depends on whether you're old enough to vote. I can't speak for the kids, but I heard more than one crying jag erupt during Azkaban's 150-minute running time. Will young kids relate to this iteration of Potter? Here's the story, you be the judge:

Once again, Harry's living with his cruel aunt and uncle, anxious to return to school. That happens soon enough, and quickly he discovers he's the target of the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, a wizard named Sirius Black who was convicted for killing dozens of people, most notably Harry's parents. Now he's escaped and is making his way toward Hogwarts, ready to snuff young Potter. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now a troubled 13-year-old, doesn't seem overly fazed at first. He's up to his usual school antics; taking classes, sneaking out to go to town, dodging Draco. It isn't until Black arrives on the scene for real (well past the midpoint of the movie) that any of this starts to gel into a plot.

And I use that term loosely. I think of myself as an astute follower of stories, but Azkaban can be baffling if you haven't read the book or don't have someone nearby to explain who's who. For those going into this blind, there are soul-sucking dementors (not especially terrifying here), shapeshifting wizards, old friends reunited, and a time travel subplot all coming together into one of the least satisfying dénouements in fantasy movie history. While it's riddled with plot holes (which I won't reveal since they'd spoil the ending), there's no doubt Harry's going to come out of it okay: The last half hour of the movie is rehashed from another angle as we run through the time travel bit, reliving the scenes from another angle.

Azkaban the novel gets mixed reviews from Potter maniacs -- some say it's their favorite book; others say it's the worst. However, if my research is correct, it is the worst-selling of the five books to date, and it will probably go down in history as the worst of the movies, too. (But I've been wrong before, of course.) In any case, by all accounts, the books really get good starting at #4 (due out in movie form next year), while Azkaban is a slim volume where comparably little happens. Ultimately Harry is in virtually no peril compared to that in the first two stories and those that follow. Heck, Voldemort doesn't even show up in this round.

The other notable problem is how radically older the cast has gotten since 2002's Chamber of Secrets. Radcliffe is valiantly fighting off puberty, but Emma Watson (Hermione) is looking her age; she's tarted up in jeans and a rainbow belt for most of the film, and sports a more stylish haircut to boot. Now 15, Rupert Grint (Ron) looks like he ought to be starring in the next American Pie movie as a wacky foreign exchange student. And Tom Felton, who plays Draco, is now 17 years old and ought to be playing rugby in college. He probably is. I couldn't believe it was the same actor.

Speaking of actors, Richard Harris is sorely missed as Dumbledore. I love Michael Gambon, but he doesn't do the kindly old wizard too well. He's got a Robert Mitchum-esque undercoating of villainy that he just can't shake. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman are fine as the new blood, but it's Emma Thompson that steals the show as a doddering divination professor.

The rest of the series remains intact. Twittering ghosts and pictures are as we remember them (Dawn French steals a scene as a portrait of a vain fat lady), the Quidditch match is an abbreviated bust, and Snape (Alan Rickman) is as menacing as ever. But nothing much happens - certainly nothing to enhance any of the characters aside from the tenuous hand-holding of Ron and Hermione - and Azkaban generates very little energy along the way.

I have high hopes that Mike Newell will reinvigorate the series with next year's Goblet of Fire (how it will clock in at less than 8 hours I have no idea), but I can't recommend Azkaban for anyone but die-hard Potter heads.

The DVD is just the thing for those Potterphiles, including two discs of extras, such as bonus footage, cast interviews, and games for the kids.

Wand by Hogwarts. Jeans by Guess.


Comments

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG, 2004

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